Two days ago I recapped last year’s brewery closures, citing eight that had shut their doors, including two that did so the final week of 2017. Just four days into 2018, it’s already time to cover the New Year’s first impending closure. This time it’s Oceanside Ale Works (1800 Ord Way, Oceanside), which announced yesterday via social media that it will be shutting down, but not before a final service on Saturday, January 6. OAW holds the dubious distinction of being the longest tenured local brewery to go out of business in the modern brewery era.
Inquiries to ownership were not immediately answered.
Established in 2006, OAW rose to popularity as an after-hours industrial-suite hangout, gaining enough of a mostly-local following to substantiate a move to a second location roughly a half-decade later. At that point, ownership upped its available square-footage and brewing capacity while adding a barrel-aging program that went on to earn critical acclaim. After the move, OAW’s traditionally low prices remained below the industry average, but heavy patronage made the math work.
When OAW opened, Breakwater Brewing was its only competition in the City of Oceanside. Now, fermentation operations of all sizes dot the landscape from the renowned Bagby Beer Co. to large-scale operations like Belching Beaver Brewery and Mason Ale Works to Camp Pendleton-adjacent Legacy Brewing to more recent additions such as Black Plague Brewing, Midnight Jack Brewing and Northern Pine Brewing to rival for municipality-namesake status Oceanside Brewing. And that doesn’t even take into consideration the 20-plus breweries in the neighboring Vista and Carlsbad communities.
On a personal note, OAW was one of the very first breweries I visited when I really began getting into locally-produced craft beer; venturing to production facilities to find out who made my beer and experience the full breadth of their creations versus simply drinking whatever I encountered on tap at retail establishments. From the moment I walked into OAW, owner Mark Purciel and his staff made me feel right at home and excited about beer. Keep in mind that I was not yet a journalist, simply an eager enthusiast, so the treatment I received was the type afforded every customer.
Having shared conversations with many OAW patrons, including professional brewers such as Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens – Liberty Station brewing manager Kris Ketcham, who participated in his first professional brew with Purciel at the company’s original location on Oceanic Drive, Purciel was a positive driving force that reeled them in and kept them coming back. A former school teacher with a fun brand of mentorship at the core of his being, he was the face of the business, and he will surely be missed in the San Diego brewing scene.
This year saw more new-brewery openings than any in San Diego County’s history. Happily, in this reporter’s opinion, more of them were of good quality than in year’s past. Enough that whittling down a list of the top half-dozen was extremely difficult, and ranking that sextet even harder. At least three breweries were on the bubble for the last spot, so if you’re using this as any sort of guide to the good stuff, don’t feel encouraged to limit your brewery touring to these selections. These are just your best bets based on the opinion of one well-researched individual. In that spirit, feel free to leave comments about any exceptional new breweries you’ve discovered over the past 12 months in the comments section. (Author’s Note: Breweries marked with an asterisk opened in 2016, but too late to be considered for the list of best new breweries for that calendar year.)
Eppig Brewing * | North Park: Nathan Stephens and Clayton LeBlanc, the duo producing the beers at this Brewery Igniter standout have a tasting room exhibiting the variety of the Little Italy outpost of their previous employers, Ballast Point Brewing. That’s saying something, especially since brewing days there resemble a game of life-sized Tetris. Still, some of the finest, most consistent lagers, plus an array of nice hoppy and even sour ales provide glimpses of what seems a very bright future for this reincarnation of a nineteenth-century family fermentation business.
Wild Barrel Brewing | San Marcos: Beer fans everywhere couldn’t help but wonder how well infinitely popular ale-and-lager expert “Dr.” Bill Sysak would fare as a brewery owner. Commenting on beer is one thing, but manufacturing it is a different game entirely. With the help of head brewer Bill Sobieski, he’s fared extremely well, hitting the ground running this fall with quality IPAs, an effective entry-level witbier and a brilliant coffee stout. Throw in a stellar tasting room complete with a gargantuan barrel at its center, and you have something special.
Burgeon Beer Co. * | Carlsbad: After gaining experience at Stone Brewing, Rough Draft Brewing and Back Street Brewery, Anthony Tallman united with long-time friends to forge his own business, and it’s been going strong since day one. Built around a smart, modern-day business model combining outside keg sales with regular in-house can releases, this newcomer has built a solid following around an array of multi-faceted IPAs and dark beers. No trend is off limits for them. That said, they’re at their best when they stay true to tradition.
Pariah Brewing | North Park: Some say this Prince-ly purple, dungeon-esque Brewery Igniter spot is no place for beer purists, and while it’s true that Stone and Helm’s Brewing alum Brian Mitchell specializes in beers that go outside the box by incorporating an array of flavorful adjuncts as simple as coffee and orange peel to as oddball as fenugreek and uni (yes, sea urchin), there are to-style gems like Indie Or Bust IPA. But this place is geared to adventurous drinkers and provides an impressive departure from the everyday, even in a town soaked in beer.
Battlemage Brewing | Vista: Role-playing game enthusiasts got a brewery playing to their passions when yet another former Ballast Point duo, Ryan Sather and Chris Barry, teamed to open this testament to the communal power of beers and broadswords. It’s become an ideal backdrop for fans of RPG and tabletop enterprises, but you don’t have to know the difference between a Halfling and a half-orc to appreciate the beers, which flow into rarely charted territory (dark mild, old ale) and come across clean and tasty. Perfect sustenance for a lengthy campaign.
Black Plague Brewing | Oceanside: An operation that looked like it might veer off course at the onset of its journey steered its way into veteran leadership when it contracted former AleSmith Brewing and Mikkeller Brewing San Diego brewer Bill Batten to assist with its fermentation operations. The resulting line-up of beers, including multi-fruited takes on an IPA that’s best on its own, plus myriad other styles, is fun and highly drinkable. The name, plague-doctor motif and black-walled tasting room are strange, but the beer provides a guiding light.
This Year’s Other Contenders: Align Brewing (Miramar), Alta Brewing (Barrio Logan), Chula Vista Brewery (Chula Vista), Circle 9 Brewing (Kearny Mesa), Ebullition Brew Works (Vista), Escondido Brewing (Escondido), Jacked Up Brewing (Escondido), Knotty Brewing * (East Village), OB Brewery * (Ocean Beach), Protector Brewery (Miramar), Rouleur Brewing (Carlsbad), Smoking Cannon Brewery (Ramona), SpecHops Brewing (Vista), SR76 Beerworks (Valley Center), Thunderhawk Alements * (Miramar), Viewpoint Brewing (Del Mar)
Maybe Next Year (Late Additions): California Wild Ales (Sorrento Valley), Deft Brewing (Bay Park), Horus Aged Ales (Oceanside), Northern Pine Brewing (Oceanside), Oeuvre Artisan Ales (Miramar), Savagewood Brewing (Scripps Ranch)
Previous Top-Ranked New Breweries
2016: Burning Beard Brewing (El Cajon), North Park Beer Co. (North Park), Resident Brewing (Downtown), Pure Project Brewing (Miramar), Bear Roots Brewing (Vista), Bitter Brothers Brewing (Bay Ho)
2015: Fall Brewing (North Park), Second Chance Beer Co. (Carmel Mountain), South Park Brewing (South Park), Abnormal Beer Co. (Rancho Bernardo), Duck Foot Brewing (Miramar)
2014: Bagby Beer Co. (Oceanside), Nickel Beer Co. (Julian), Council Brewing (Kearny Mesa), URBN St. Brewing (El Cajon), Toolbox Brewing (Vista)
2013: Rip Current Brewing (San Marcos), Benchmark Brewing (Grantville), Amplified Ale Works (Pacific Beach), Belching Beaver Brewery (Vista), Modern Times Beer (Point Loma)
2012: Societe Brewing (Kearny Mesa), Monkey Paw Pub & Brewery (East Village), Latitude 33 Brewing (Vista)
Typically, I try to wait a while before visiting a new brewery so the brewing team has time to work out any early kinks, but recently I was so inspired by pre-open samples of beers at Wild Barrel Brewing (692 Rancheros Drive, San Marcos) that I deviated from my SOP. Also, I didn’t want to be the last beer fan in the county to make it to this early success from Stone Brewing expats Bill Sysak and Bill Sobieski (editor’s note: Hernández himself is a Stone expat). The former is known as “Dr.” Bill in beer-connoisseur circles, as he was a medic in the military, and he absolutely knows good beer, but many wondered if he’d be able to brew good beer, too. My answer: probably not…but that’s what the other Bill (the one with fermentation experience at Stone as well as Anaheim’s Hoperazzi) brings to the table.
Although he’s not milling, graining in and dry-hopping, Sysak does have a major impact on brewing decisions at Wild Barrel. In his roles as beverage supervisor and beer ambassador for Stone, he always kept his finger on the pulse of beer fans, so he is familiar with current trends and has used that knowledge to develop a sound portfolio that features numerous India pale ales (IPAs) and fruited kettle sours, a coffee milk stout, and a single style for entry-level visitors, White Rabbit Belgian-style witbier. The latter is brewed with coriander and two forms of citrus, traditional curacao orange peel, and fresh Valencia orange zest. It is light in body, lively on the palate and good enough to serve as the only non-hoppy, non-sour, decaf option.
Of late, many new breweries have had to contend with shortages of popular hops such as Citra, Mosaic, and Nelson Sauvin, but this operation is well stocked, making for a family of IPAs that feel current and almost familiar. The flagship, Indie IPA, has a medium body and savory notes of garlic and onion, while the murky Shape Shifter’s combo of Nelson, Mosaic and Idaho 7 makes for a harmonious mix of tropical fruit flavors. By far the most layered (and downright badass) of the bunch is Prince of Dankness, an 8.4% alcohol-by-volume (ABV) double IPA dry-hopped with 28 pounds of Nelson and six pounds of Motueka. The result is a beer with big pine-cone and toasted popcorn kernel overtones, plus a downright sappy finish.
As lovely and varied as the IPAs were, my favorite beer of the visit may have been Hipster Latte, a 5.5% ABV milk stout made with a blend of coffee made exclusively for Wild Barrel by Rancho Bernardo-based roaster Mostra. It is bold in its roastiness—you’re abundantly aware there is coffee in there—but it is extremely balanced and especially dry for a stout with lactose. It’s particularly impressive that Sobieski put out a beer this perfect his first time producing it and makes me look forward to trying that proprietary blend at the coffee counter that will be constructed next to the tasting room’s main entrance.
Of Wild Barrel’s early beers, I found the San Diego Vice fruited Berliner weisse series — the name illustrates how to pronounce the German word “weisse” — tasted over-fruited for my palate, with the black currant iteration coming across as a tad too sweet. Still, this is a subjective knock, and a beer having too much quality local fruit, some of which is from Sobieski’s back yard, is a first-world problem entirely. Of the three Vices, a Montmorency cherry version was my favorite. The nose is rosé all day, and it tastes of cherry and strawberry preserves.
As the business’ name implies, barrel-aged sours, stouts and strong ales will be part of Wild Barrel’s makeup, but not until its oaken stock has time to mature. Even without wood- and booze-tinged product, there is plenty of high-quality beer to draw imbibers to this North County newcomer.
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas—well, as wintry and holiday-like as we get in sunny San Diego, but that warm weather is perfect for enjoying beer, so it’s OK if Saint Nick keeps ignoring our dreams of a white yuletide. There’ll be plenty of fun events happening, holiday-themed and otherwise. We’ve hand-selected a few, but be sure to check out our events page for even more.
December 1 & 2 | Strong Ale Fest: Few experiences are as nostalgic for local beer-scene veterans as huddling together in the crowded back-lot of the Pizza Port bottle shop and repetitiously making one’s way to an outside bar many taps strong. The term “strong” is apt, because everything on tap at this annual fest is high in ABV yet innovative and diverse. Merry Christmas, Uber! | Pizza Port, 571 Carlsbad Village Drive, Carlsbad, Times Vary
December 2 | Three-Year Anniversary: Celebrate the three-year anniversary of La Mesans getting beers brewed in their hometown. If it’s anything like the past two years, live music and a plethora of beers will make a very fun party pad out Bolt Brewery’s sprawling, tiered outdoor tasting area. If you’ve never been to this East County spot, this is the perfect opportunity to do so. | Bolt Brewery, 8179 Center Street, La Mesa, 1 p.m.
December 10 | Belated One-Year Anniversary: December 10 is National Lager Day, and an apt day for one of the best lager producers in the county, Eppig Brewing, to celebrate its first year in business. This interest is looking to reward the beer connoisseurs who’ve made it one of the most revered new operations in town with a fun and easy event stocked with beers worth coming out for. | Eppig Brewing, 3052 El Cajon Boulevard, Suite C, North Park, 1 p.m.
December 17 | Santa at the SouthNorte Pole: It can be challenging to find beer-related holiday happenings that are family friendly, but thanks to Santa’s decision to visit Small Bar—with gifts for believers of all ages in his sleigh, no less—along with the team from newly established SouthNorte Brewing and their beers, a rare all-ages beer-brunch experience can be yours! | Small Bar, 4628 Park Boulevard, University Heights, 10 a.m.
December 31 | Craft Beer New Year: Whether you in North County or San Diego proper, Stone Brewing has a NYE bash of epic proportions for you. Join them at either of their restaurants and enjoy a smorgasbord of farm-to-table food along with various musical offerings, games, a photo booth, midnight toast and, of course, lots and lots of craft beer and commemorative glassware. | Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens, 1999 Citracado Parkway, Escondido; Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens – Liberty Station, 2816 Historic Decatur Road, #116, Point Loma; 8:30 p.m.